Negotiating Women’s Body as Commodity in Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange

Women are an interesting topic which can be analyzed in a narrative by a literary critic. Focusing on the narrative structure, a narrative made by men usually constructs a typical representation of women which is described in and along the text and has happened for many years. Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange also presents the issue about the construction of women described in the text, especially women’s body as commodities. However, questions arise in analyzing this issue: how is the construction of women presented in the text? How does the text and its structure work in constructing the issue? What ideology or culture, if any, does the text present in relation with women’s body as commodities? Is there any other issue constructed in the text connected with women’s body as commodities?

Before jumping to the issue about how women are presented in the text, I would like to discuss the narrative structure of the text. Jacques Derrida argues in his essay entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” that structure is a freeplay that has no center. It results in the deconstruction of the text as soon as it is formed or in the level of sign.

The paradox is that the metaphysical reduction of the sign needed the opposition it was reducing. The opposition is part of the system, along with the reduction. And what I am saying here about the sign can be extended to all the concepts and all the sentences of metaphysics, in particular the discourse on “structure.” (Derrida, 1970, p. 3)

Therefore, there will always be opposition in every discourse. However, Derrida does not talk specifically about a narrative structure in his essay.  He only gives the example of deconstruction by relating it to myth and history due to the influence of Lévi-Strauss.

Meanwhile, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari also agree with the possibilities of a discourse and they even propose a crazy idea in their essay entitled “1874: Three Novellas, or ‘What Happened?’” They coin the term “rhizomatic” that has complex lines which are composed of molecular lines in which they lead to a “crack line.” This crack line “occur[s] when things are going well on the other side” (Deleuze & Guattari, p. 198). Thus, the expansion of the lines will not stop to only two ways. Nevertheless, this whole idea is conducted in analyzing a novella, not a novel. They argue that a novel “integrates elements of novella and the tale into the variation of its perpetual living present (duration)” so that a novel should be analyzed differently from them (Deleuze & Guattari, p. 192). Besides, they quote Deligny’s statement that these lines are found in a cartography so “it has nothing to do with structure” (Deleuze & Guattari, p. 203). Therefore, in analyzing Rates of Exchange, I will reduplicate both Derrida’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s methodologies to cover each lack side of the theory in order to map the structure of the novel.

Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange presents its own deconstruction from the first pagination. The first pagination of the novel is regarded as “a few brief hints” of Slaka so that the reader will not be confused of what Slaka is when they read the following chapters. This section is made in resemblance to a guidebook we always see and read if we go abroad. However, this section/line is a part of the structure and a part of the novel too. The opening of the novel, thus, leads the reader into two different lines when we follow the story of the text: to criticize it – whether by using Christian theology, Marxism, folklore theory, or structuralism as the narrator suggests – yet at the same time to remember it as a fiction which is again reminded by the narrator who “like[s] [his] fictions to remain fictions” (Bradbury, 2003, p. 10). Moreover, we will find a ticket plane before entering the first chapter of the novel. These two lines of the novel which present another writing inside the text have already deconstructed the structure of the narrative we usually find when we read a novel. Therefore, it leads into two segmentaries, the first is the text tries to deepen the issue of its narrative structure and the second is merely to emphasize the fictional side of the text. The text, then, continues to fragment each chapter into another sub-chapter, dividing each chapter into another segmentary compose of different story – each sub-chapter may tell about the next event of the story or the flashback of the current event. These lines keeps on spreading and cracking as we finally find a crosscut between each character (Petworth-Katya Princip-Plitplov-Marisja Lubijova). This crosscut causes a conflict or an issue of the novel which I have written in the first paragraph – women’s body as commodities – to be further analyzed.

However, I still cannot conclude the structure of the issue presented in the novel if I only rely on deconstruction and rhizomatic of the narrative structure. Thus, as Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari says, I have to lengthen the line to the “micromovement” of the conscious and unconscious.

I found out that the text presents the issue about women’s body as commodities. The topic becomes a highlight although the text does not directly state that women are commodities. The topic is hidden between the silence and the spoken. Discussing the issue of women as commodities in patriarchal society, Luce Irigaray argues in her essay “Woman on the Market” that as commodities, women have two kind of values which she adapts from Marx’s statement about commodity: natural value (as child bearers) and social value which is created by men. However, she argues that the two values of a woman are also decided by men in order to create social order so that women are only passive agents in the transaction between men. She also says that men regard desire and pleasure as masculine so women cannot feel them for they are men’s business. She constantly writes that as commodities, women provide sexual pleasure to men while men give them “economic pleasure.” In this case, Rates of Exchange presents the issue about women as comodities almost the same as her writing by constantly emphasizing that sex is just politics with the clothes off” (Bradbury, 2003, p. 139), repeating the saying “some advance on their knees, other on their backs,” and constructing the image of Slakan women as the mistresses of Slakan apparatchiks.

 However, what if women who first initiate the sexual desire? What if both men and women enjoy their sexual encounters? Rates of Exchange easily presents the deconstruction of Irigaray’s statement in the sexual encounter between Petworth and Katya Princip. Katya initiates their sex and tells Petworth to touch parts of her body in order to make her release her sexual desire. Irigaray does not expand her analysis to these possibilities because she insists on how women are treated as commodities and exchanged by men in order to “[establish] the operations of society, at least of patriarchal society” (Irigaray, 1985, p. 807). This social order creates three kinds of woman: as a mother, as a virginal woman, and as a prostitute. These three kinds of woman have their own qualities to define their value yet the one whose quality is regarded “useful” is the prostitute. Irigaray argues that in patriarchal society, a prostitute’s body “is valuable because it has already been used [by men]” and the more her body is used, the more valuable her body becomes (Irigaray, 1985, p. 808).

Nevertheless, another question arises: is age mattered to the prostitute the same as it is mattered to a mother and a virginal woman? Unfortunately, she only gives a statement that those three are the social roles of women imposed by men without explaining them further. Moreover, her writing analyzes the real world not the narrative world so that it will be quite hard to make it useful for the analyzing of a narrative.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar create the crosscut between narrative structure and real world by examining the issue about women in their essay arguing that the eighteenth century male novels presents woman’s images in men’s eyes created by man’s strategy in covering his inability “to control his own physical existence, his own birth and death” (Gilbert & Gubar, 1980, pp. 822-3).  They focus on analyzing the narrative structure of each novel then finding the thread or the crosscut before concluding their writing. They later found out that every male author has the same characteristic built in their works. Every woman character is categorized into two groups: the “angelic” woman and the “monster-woman.” The texts constantly compare both categories and they always regard the “angelic” woman as the true woman. The idea of “angelic” woman and “monster-woman” keeps appearing in literary works for centuries so that it is embedded in society and makes female authorship becomes hard to accept by many people until now because the act of writing is regarded as masculine or “monster-woman.” After analyzing this, she comes to a conclusion that this phenomenon makes female authorship in the following years – and perhaps until today – becomes hard to accept by many people. It happens because the act of writing is regarded as masculine and women do not have a story as interesting as men have.

Katya Princip suffers this judgment as presented by the novel. The text tells us that she cannot write and publish her novel freely due to the law. Thus, it leads her to make her body as a commodity among the influenced men in order to protect her and publish her novel. Nevertheless, the text presents other kind of woman oppression although it does not get the brightest spotlight. This oppression is failed to be analyzed in Gilbert and Gubar’s essay. The possibility of women oppress other women, usually the colored one, is not written in their essay. Her analysis of eighteenth century novels are only focused on the white women particularly their representation described in the literary works. Meanwhile, Rates of Exchange indirectly opens other deconstruction of the previous issue by presenting the untold story of Lottie, Petworth’s black little wife. We cannot see the body in the text – we also cannot see the actual body of other characters yet they constantly interacted with each other as the text presents – interacts directly with every character. She only appears in the story of other character’s conversation.

Thus, Gilbert and Gubar’s essay is also failed to notice the negotiation of the “monster-woman” in every text which is indirectly described in the narrative structure by presenting the winning of “angelic” woman and the system in which it revolves.

Finally, it comes to the final two questions: the ideology of the text and other issue following the construction of women’s body as commodities. Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari do not discuss about ideology in their essay. In analyzing these two aspects, I, therefore, will discuss Catherine Belsey’s writing on those matters.

[L]iterature as one of the most persuasive uses of language may have an important influence on the ways in which people grasp themselves and their relation to the real relations in which they live. (Belsey, 1985, p. 360)

Therefore, it may be possible that Rates of Exchange describes a situation of a real world yet imaginary at the same time. On the one hand, the persistent representation of women as commodities which happens in the un-Socialist country may be a satire as an effort to criticize what Marx also criticizes in his essay, commodities and capitalist society. On the other hand, the narrative structure at the same time presents a negotiation of that issue by showing the submission of every woman character in the end of the text. Every resistance of woman characters presented in the text, as Derrida argues, has its opposition to destroy it as soon as it begins. This deconstruction is endless yet, as Deleuze and Guattari puts it, it will be forced to meet its end the moment the novel comes to end.

Works Cited

Belsey, C. (1985). Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text. 355-370.

Bradbury, M. (2003). Rates of Exchange. London: Picador.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (n.d.). 1874: Three Novellas or ‘What Happened?’. 192-207.

Derrida, J. (1970). Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. 1-13.

Gilbert, S., & Gubar, S. (1980). The Madwoman in the Attic.

Irigaray, L. (1985). Woman on the Market. In L. Irigaray, This Sex which is not One (C. Porter, & C. Burke, Trans., pp. 170-191). New York: Cornell University Press.